Five days ag, Stacey Allaster declared that the “US Open is open for business”.
The newly appointed tournament director’s statement came as part of a lengthy virtual press conference that announced the Cincinnati Masters – originally staged in Mason, Ohio – and the US Open are set to be played back-to-back at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Stadium in New York City from August 21 to September 13.
Allaster unveiled plans that revolved around the concept of isolating the players and their entourages in a “bubble” to enforce social distancing measures.
This includes confining them to two hotels or, alternatively, private rental homes outside Manhattan with frequent Covid-19 testing and utilising the vast onsite facilities to the full extent, in the absence of fans and media.
Despite an elaborate sounding plan, most journalists signed off from the press conference with more questions than answers. While the efforts by USTA to save the tournament are commendable, a big part of the plan hinges on players being responsible.
When asked how the organisers intend to make sure players do not leave their hotels or private homes and break the seal of the so-called “bubble”, Allaster said: “There will be protocols and measures that they will need to follow. There’s a leap of faith here.”
While Allaster was addressing the media, Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov, Dominic Thiem and others were taking part in the Adria Tour – an event in the Balkans without any social-distancing measures and played in front of packed stands.
Players in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, and later in Zadar, Croatia, were seen playing football and basketball together, constantly hugging and having close physical contact, with no masks.
To celebrate the end of the Belgrade stop, Djokovic – the Adria Tour is his venture – and his guests went clubbing and were filmed dancing shirtless.
On Saturday, an out-of-sorts Dimitrov lost easily to Borna Coric in Zadar and opted not to shake hands with the umpire. On Sunday, Dimitrov announced he was back in Monaco and had tested positive for Covid-19. The final match of the Zadar stop and a planned music concert were cancelled as a result.
Within three days of the US Open announcement, we already got a high-profile positive test. Dimitrov is a former world No 3 and made the semi-finals of the US Open last year.
“Apparently there is a pandemic,” former world No 1 Andy Roddick sarcastically tweeted when news of Dimitrov broke.
On Monday, Coric disclosed he had also tested positive for the virus.
Irrespective of how well Serbia and Croatia are doing in terms of containing the virus, this event had players fly in from different parts of the world, and immediately show up for group activities including a kids’ day.
At the very least, it was a case of bad optics, especially with the way the players were flaunting their irresponsible behaviour. Even if Serbia and Croatia have relaxed measures, common sense should prevail. Dimitrov and Coric testing positive, unfortunately, implies that it was more problematic than that.
With nearly 600 players and members of their entourages all expected to descend in New York, it’s hard to imagine every one of them abiding by the strict rules for nearly four weeks. That is a long time to stay put for individuals.
Another key part of the USTA’s plan relies on complete faith in testing. The case of Nick Watney on the PGA Tour shows how testing negative upon arrival at a tournament doesn’t mean you cannot test positive a couple of days later.
False negatives have been known to happen but Dr Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer who has been advising the USTA and spoke at Thursday’s press conference, insists there is no chance of any false negatives with the type of test they plan on using.
“We know how we can start doing things in a manner that doesn’t necessarily prevent one person from getting Covid-19, but that can prevent and mitigate against the risk of spread of this disease,” he said. “We are confident that we can pull this off.”
The level of confidence everyone spoke with that day is possibly the biggest red flag. How can they be so unequivocal in their assertions when we’ve seen how unpredictable this virus can be, and how quickly things can change? We have no idea what the world, let alone New York City, will look like in 10 weeks’ time.
USTA chief executive Mike Dowse started his speech by saying they made their decision to stage both tournaments based on three principles: that the events can be played safely and are “in the best interests of the health and well-being of everyone involved”; that this will be in the best interest of tennis; and that it made sense financially.
“I’m excited to say, the combination of the Western & Southern Open and the US Open here in New York checked all three of those boxes unequivocally,” Dowse said.
Staging tournaments that would bring nearly 600 people from all corners of the Earth to a Covid-19 hotspot is in the best interest of health and well-being of everyone involved?
It will be interesting to see how Dimitrov’s positive test will affect the decision-making of the rest of the players. Will they opt to be more cautious? Will they choose to skip the US Open, or decide to go and follow the restrictions to a tee?
In the face of the unknown, Allaster is somehow certain the top players will head to New York, even though many have already voiced their doubts. “We are going to have incredible star power for the Western & Southern Open and US Open. We know and we respect that all athletes are going to need to make this decision on their own,” she said in two sentences that, in a way, contradict one another.
Some might see the return of tennis as premature and unnecessary, given the circumstances. Others are eager to get back on tour and earn money after a six-month hiatus.
Still, most would agree that the USTA’s master plan seems a lot harder to pull off than they are making it out to be.